Iranian tanker, at centre of US-Iran dispute, photographed off Syrian port

Iranian tanker appears to have violated EU sanctions on Syria. Meanwhile, Tehran begins using array of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of nuclear deal.
Saturday 07/09/2019
A satellite image of what appears to be the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1 off the coast of Tartus, Syria, September 6. (Maxar Technologies via Reuters)
A satellite image of what appears to be the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1 off the coast of Tartus, Syria, September 6. (Maxar Technologies via Reuters)

LONDON- The Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1 at the centre of a dispute between Tehran and Western powers, which went dark off Syria earlier in the week, has been photographed by satellite off the Syrian port of Tartus, Maxar Technologies Inc., a US space technology company said on September 7.

Maxar's supplied image shows the tanker Adrian Darya 1 very close to Tartus on September 6.

The ship appeared to have turned off its transponder in the Mediterranean west of Syria, Refinitiv ship-tracking data showed on September 3.

The tanker, which is loaded with Iranian crude oil, sent its last signal giving its position between Cyprus and Syria sailing north at 15:53 GMT on September 2, the data showed.

The vessel, formerly named Grace 1, was detained by British Royal Marine commandos off Gibraltar on July 4 as it was suspected to be en route to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.

Two weeks later, Iran in retaliation seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz leading into the Gulf.

Gibraltar released the Iranian vessel on August15 after receiving formal written assurances from Tehran that the ship would not discharge its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria.

However, shipping sources say the tanker is likely to try to conduct a ship-to-ship transfer with another vessel for part of its cargo after Iran said a sale had been concluded.

Washington has warned any state against assisting the ship, saying it would consider that support for a terrorist organisation, namely, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The US Treasury Department blacklisted the tanker on Friday. 

Iran holds 12 Filipino crew

Iran's coast guard has seized a vessel for allegedly smuggling fuel in the Gulf and detained its 12 crew members from the Philippines, the semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

The vessel was carrying nearly 284,000 litres of diesel, the news agency said on September 7.

Iran, which has some of the world's cheapest fuel prices due to heavy state subsidies and the fall of its currency, has been fighting rampant fuel smuggling by land to neighbouring countries and by sea to Gulf Arab states.

It has frequently seized boats it says are being used for smuggling oil in the Gulf.

Meanwhile, the US Transportation Department's Maritime Administration issued on September 7 a new warning to shippers about a potential threat off the coast of Yemen in the southern Red Sea.

"A maritime threat has been reported in the Red Sea in the vicinity of Yemen," the warning read. "The nature of the event is potential increased hostilities that threaten maritime security."

Large areas of war-torn Yemen are held by the country's Houthi rebels, which are allied to Iran. Shipping in the Red Sea has been targeted previously by rebel attacks. On September 4, a warning went out after two small boats followed one ship in the region, but there's been no other information about a new threat there.

Commander Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the US Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said the Navy remained ready to maintain the safety of shippers in the region. He declined to specifically discuss the warning. 

Iran begins using more advanced centrifuges

Iran has begun using an array of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of its 2015 nuclear deal, a spokesman said on Saturday 7, warning that Europe has little time left to offer new terms to save the accord.

The comments by Behrouz Kamalvandi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran signal a further cut into the one year experts estimate Tehran would need to have a enough material for building a nuclear weapon if it chose to pursue one. Iran maintains its program is peaceful.

Iran already has breached the stockpile and enrichment level limits set by the deal, while stressing it could quickly revert back to the terms of the accord if Europe finds a way for it to sell its crude oil abroad despite crushing US sanctions. 

Tensions between Iran and the US have risen in recent months, with mysterious attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone and other incidents across the wider Middle East.

"Our stockpile is quickly increasing," Kamalvandi warned in a news conference. "We hope they will come to their senses."

The accord saw Iran limits its enrichment of uranium in exchange for sanctions relief. Among the limitations was a requirement that Iran use only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. A centrifuge is a device that enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.

Iran has begun using an array of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and another 20 of IR-4 centrifuges, Kamalvandi said. An IR-6 can produce enriched uranium 10 times as fast as an IR-1, Iranian officials say, while an IR-4 produces five times as fast.

Iran already has increased its enrichment up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal. Using advanced centrifuges means a shorter time would be needed to push up its enrichment.

Kamalvandi said Iran had the ability to go beyond 20% enrichment of uranium. Experts say 20% is just a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90% enrichment.

While Kamalvandi stressed that "the Islamic Republic is not after the bomb," he warned that Iran was running out of ways to stay in the accord.

"If Europeans want to make any decision, they should do it soon," he said.

Kamalvandi also said Iran would allow UN inspectors to continue to monitor sites in the country. A top official from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to meet with Iranian officials in Tehran on September 8.

Kamalvandi made the remarks in a news conference carried on live television. He spoke from a podium with advanced centrifuges standing next to him.

(AW and agencies)